Unfair gender banter

Society is primarily responsible for differences in aptitudes between the sexes, says a recent survey

Published: Saturday 30 September 1995

American students: operating u (Credit: USIS) Are men and women really different? This issue has been examined umpteen times by researchers hailing from various disciplines -- biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, medical practioners, behavioralists, psychologists -- and each has something new, different and invariably controversial to say on biological differences existing between the 2 sexes. Most researchers agree that biologically, the sexes are different from each other, although there are strong disagreements among them on the exact nature and the consequences of the differences.

Now results of a new scientific study conducted in the us (Science, Vol 269, No 5220) suggests that girls fare better at mental tests of reading and writing, while boys perform better at tests of science and mathematics -- a finding which would have a profound impact on education and their occupations in later life.

The research which was conducted by Larry V Hedges and Amy Novell of the University of Chicago, analysed 6 large national surveys of American male and female teenagers' performance on tests of mental ability over the past 4 decades. The study found that the average sex difference in most measured abilities small. Nevertheless, the differences in performance in science, mathematics, reading and writing -- combined with the fact that the score by the boys tended to vary more widely than that of the girls -- frequently produced situations where boys greatly outnumbered girls at the top or bottom of the scale.

For instance, 7 times as many boys as girls scored in the top 5 per cent of science tests, and about twice as many boys as girls scored in the top 5 per cent in mathematic tests, says Hedges, a professor of education and social science at the University of Chicago. In mechanical reasoning, electronic information, and auto and shop information, the boys outperformed girls, the study suggests. In areas such as mechanical comprehension and other vocational tests, 8 to 10 times as many boys as girls scored in the top 10 per cent.

On the other hand, boys were more likely than girls to score near the bottom of the scale on tests of reading comprehension, memory and perpetual speed. The study also found that people who have careers in science and engineering are overwhelmingly more likely to score 90 per cent or even higher on mathematics tests in high school.

The study suggests that boys are at an "alarming" disadvantage regarding writing tests compared to girls -- a finding with important implications on educational policy. "The generally large number of males who perform at the bottom of the distribution in reading comprehension and writing...we will have difficulty finding employment in an increasingly information-driven economy. Thus, some intervention may be required to enable them participate more constructively in the workforce," the study warns.

Hedges and Novell say the differences in scores between boys and girls show very little change between 1960 -- the year of the first survey -- and 1992, the year of the most recent survey. "This is disappointing. Some people might use this fact as an arguement that the differences are really biological. It is equally plausible that the efforts to change things have been too little," says Hedges.

Hedges suggests that if the American society wants even number of men and women in scientific and technical fields, "we have to do 7 times as good a job in recruiting women." The report contends that the differences in the abilities of the 2 sexes are likely to figure increasingly in policy discussions in the United States like salary fairness because, economists have recently begun using individual differences in test scores to explain sex differences in wages and employment advancement, the report notes.

But the study does not shed any light on the origin of such differences in aptitude. "I believe the sex differences in abilities are caused by social constraints than biology," argues Hedges. "Traditionally, there is more encouragement for men to learn maths and science, while women are encouraged to learn literature. In the long run, there is a need to change the opportunity structure to recruit more women in science," he adds.

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